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Thirty-four of Vuillard’s paintings can be found in UK public collections. Several of these, together with lithographs and photographs, feature in The Barber Institute of Fine Art’s exhibition, the first dedicated exclusively to Vuillard’s portrayal of his mother, Madame Marie Vuillard (1839–1928). Here, the exhibition’s curator, Francesca Berry (University of Birmingham), selects five unmissable works by this intriguing French modernist who painted his mother no fewer than 500 times.

The title of this dazzling painting indicates just two figures. But Madame Vuillard is certainly a third figure dressed in yellow at left. The shadows and deep orange wall imply a scene lit artificially. Vuillard has depicted his mother and two young apprentices conducting night work in Madame Vuillard’s made-to-measure corsetry and dressmaking atelier, which she ran from the dining-room of their rue Saint-Honoré apartment at the heart of the Parisian garment industry. The painting operates in the immediate context of France’s November 1892 law which reduced women’s working day to eleven hours (ten hours for those aged thirteen to sixteen). Except, that was, for the sixty nights of additional work the law permitted at the height of the sewing season, and for family workshops such as Madame Vuillard’s, which were exempt entirely from the new legislation.

The Artist's Sister with a Cup of Coffee

The Artist's Sister with a Cup of Coffee 1893

Jean-Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940)

Vuillard’s sister Marie Roussel (1861–1948) is alone at a table, demonstrably posing for the painting, while Madame Vuillard, in a white blouse and black skirt, is just visible through an open door. Marie is poised between a cup of coffee and a broom momentarily leant against the internal wall. In taking time for herself away from housework, Marie has granted Vuillard time to work at painting his sister in natural light, which falls dramatically on one side of her face. But it nonetheless feels like a stolen moment and one in which Madame Vuillard’s authority as chef-patronne of the sewing workshop in which Marie was employed, and matriarch of the Vuillard household, is asserted with no less clarity despite her fragmentary presence.

La causette (The Chat)

La causette (The Chat) 1893

Jean-Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940)

Vuillard has painted his sister Marie in a white dress and corsage on her wedding day to his friend, and fellow Nabi artist, Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944). Thus, the chat between mother and daughter in the latter’s bedroom is not just any everyday conversation, it is the chat – about sex, procreation and wifely duty, customarily given on the wedding day itself. A conversation that is likely to have been as misleading as it would have been embarrassing, and even terrifying, for its recipient, and which ordinarily took place behind closed doors. Note Vuillard’s dramatic imagining of these feelings in the figures’ opposing postures – one self-satisfied, the other shameful – and the anthropomorphic black shape (a cape perhaps?) that straddles the marital bed.

Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair

Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair 1900

Jean-Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940)

This intimate, yet humourous, painting depicts the artist’s 51-year-old mother, Madame Vuillard, in a dressing gown and styling her hair, arms incongruously crossed over her chest. Viewed from behind as an arrangement of patterned fabric, the figure merges with its bedroom setting by virtue of the tonal harmonisation of brown, purple, green and cream. She is staged in three ways in relation to a mirrored armoire. Firstly, as a figure in front of the wardrobe. Secondly, as a figure reflected on the surface of the wardrobe. Finally, as a figure inside the wardrobe – its enclosed contents.

Few other items of furniture, except perhaps the sewing machine, are more personally affiliated in Vuillard’s art to his mother than this mirrored armoire. But it is The Barber Institute’s 1900 painting that is the first to give painterly form to the mirrored armoire and to Madame Vuillard’s reflection. For all its personal significance it is nonetheless likely that Vuillard derived inspiration for the composition from ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints (of which he was an avid collector) and Mary Cassatt’s 1890–1891 print depicting a semi-nude woman at a mirrored armoire: The Coiffure.

The Laden Table

The Laden Table (La Table encombrée) c.1908

Jean-Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940)

Offering a dramatically receding view into the Vuillards’ rue de Calais apartment, this pastel portrays Madame Vuillard intently reading a large book. Her rounded figure in a dusky pink housecoat anchors the scene, a contrast to the rising figure of her granddaughter Annette (b.1898), and the silhouette of her grandson Jacques (b.1901) hovering, perhaps melancholically, at the window. Félix Vallotton’s framed portrait of Vuillard, depicted at the compositional apex of the painting, enhances its tripartite intergenerational composition. Clearly occupants of the same room-space, each figure nonetheless is individually framed and contained within their own thoughts: those attendant to reading, to study and to gazing out of a window.

Francesca Berry, Senior Lecturer, Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham and exhibition curator of 'Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard'

The exhibition 'Maman: Vuillard and Madame Vuillard' is on display at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts from 19th October 2018 to 20th January 2019.